The Emergence Of Relevancy
In TV Production
Although news and public affairs programming greatly increased the TV focus on African Americans in the early 1960s, a similar surge did not develop in dramatic productions. Two years after its initial report castigating American television, the New York Ethical Society published results of a second monitoring of the medium in search of black representation. From findings issued in December 1964, the society concluded that the industry was not keeping abreast of national political and social developments, and that "continued glaring deficiencies outweigh the few improvements. The improvements stem from the fact that the industry has no place to go but up."
The report was critical especially of network TV for failing to match the levels of integration encountered on local video. Local shows in New York City, the Society contended, were more favorable to blacks than network offerings. In the words of the report, this was "not accidental." It resulted in part because regional and local racial confrontation influenced national programming, and when "faced by conflict, the networks play it safe."
In statistical terms, the paucity of African-American representation was striking. According to the society, on an average evening of television in April 1963, a viewer in New York City would see about three blacks—only one for longer than a minute. In only one-fifth of all appearances would a black performer be on the screen for more than three minutes. And in some types of programming—children's productions, daytime soap operas, and dramatic shows—the use of blacks had risen only slightly over its low level two years earlier.
The single area in which a strong improvement was noted was in the use of blacks in advertisements and public service announcements, especially the latter. Where there had been an average of two blacks in such spots every five hours in 1962, there were now thirty-six. If the major producers still avoided employing African-American talent, at least network and advertising agency executives were beginning to respond to the realities of what D. Parke Gibson called "the $30 Billion Negro."
The economic power of the black consumer market increased dramatically in the 1960s. Blacks spent more than $30 billion annually on goods and services. Significantly, because of demographic patterns this purchasing power was concentrated mostly in urban areas of the nation. During the period 1940-1960, three million African Americans left the South and moved elsewhere in the United States. Most moved to the big cities of the East Coast, the Midwest and Far West. Gibson estimated that by 1970 blacks would constitute 40 percent or more of the citizenry of fourteen major cities—including Baltimore, St. Louis, Detroit, Gary, Newark, and Washington, D.C. Further estimates suggested that blacks soon would be 25 to 68 percent of the population in fifty major markets having a total black and white population of 100 million. According to Gibson, this was a compelling reality for American business.
This means, simply that on a straight population basis if a company wants to sell effectively to 40 percent of one of the named markets, it has to sell effectively to Negro consumers. ... if Negroes are above average purchasers of a product—say the 40 percent of the population that is Negro buys 60 percent of the product in that market—Negro consumers will decide if the product is to succeed or if it is to fail.
Despite the gloomy statistics announced by the New York Ethical Society, TV had not since its earliest years been as open to black talent as it became during the 1963-1964 season. And it was inevitable that blacks would appear more frequently because this was, in the words of critic Richard Schickel, "the year of the problem."
Reflecting actual social criticism and protest, video turned to stories involving social problems. As Schickel pointed out, by the fall of 1963 television had refocused many of its dramatic programs from concern with usual human dilemmas, to provocative involvement with relevant social problems. Such programming, moreover, would counteract the assessment of television as a vast wasteland. Hopefully, too, it might ease criticism emanating from the national government.
No longer content with plot revolving around the “disease of the week,” medical series such as The Eleventh Hour, Ben Casey, The Nurses, Breaking Point, and Dr. Kildare now explored contemporary values and social morality as they told their stories. Mr. Novak and Channing, set in a high school and a university, respectively, now presented dramas drawn from newspaper headlines of the day. In this way, story lines touched on such topics as civil rights issues, students facing the Vietnam war, and a blacklisted professor trying to hide his past.
The series which most inspired this trend toward relevancy was the courtroom dramatic program produced by Herb Brodkin, The Defenders. A CBS series which ran from 1961 to 1965, The Defenders presented various sides of complex social issues. In a style later championed by shows such as Lou Grant and producers in the mold of Norman Lear, The Defenders was more than a whodunit in which lawyers instead of private detectives or police officers solved crimes. Now plots revolved around such realistic problems as literary censorship, lynching, the morality of the death penalty, the admission of wiretap evidence in court, the right of a student to advocate atheistic ideas in public school, and the antidemocratic politics of the contemporary American radical right. This was a literate series, often enacting scripts by noted dramatists, among them Ernest Kinoy, Reginald Rose, and Howard Fast. Its success, moreover, encouraged producers and writers of other series to deal more frankly with the most controversial issue of the day: the place of blacks in American society.
At least one "racial" story appeared on each of the major dramatic programs in the 1963-1964 season. On Ben Casey, Sammy Davis, Jr. played a dramatic role in "Allie." In it he portrayed a baseball player whose adjustment to the loss of an eye was easy compared to his confrontation with a black doctor, played by Greg Morris, whose anti-white racism was virulent. Ossie Davis appeared as a judge in "The Star-Spangled Ghetto," an episode of The Defenders.
On the historical series, The Great Adventure, Ruby Dee portrayed Harriet Tubman in an episode entitled, "Go Down, Moses." James Earl Jones played a bigoted professor in "Freedom Is a Lovesome Thing, God Wot!" on Channing. James Edwards, Hari Rhodes, and Ruby Dee starred in a boxing drama, "Decision in the Ring," in an episode of The Fugitive. Barbara McNair and Diahann Carroll appeared in separate episodes of the psychological series, The Eleventh Hour. Gloria Calomee appeared as a black student terrorized by whites in an episode of Mr. Novak. And Diana Sands made several major appearances, including significant roles on The Breaking Point, Outer Limits, and The Nurses.
African Americans performed on other types of network programming. Count Basie was a guest on the Judy Garland Show. Jazz musician Billy Taylor became musical director of the satiric comedy revue, That Was the Week That Was. NBC aired a prime time documentary about baseball great Willie Mays, entitled, "A Man Called Mays." And several African Americans performed on the folk music series, Hootenanny, including Bill Cosby, Josh White, Leon Bibb, and Brock Peters—as well as several of the most popular gospel groups of the day, including Clara Ward and Her Gospel Singers, Albertina Walker and The Caravans, and Marion Williams and The Stars of Faith.
Further, two dramatic series that season featured black actresses in recurring roles. Hilda Simms joined the CBS program, The Nurses, to portray nurse Ayers; and Cicely Tyson starred as Jane Foster, a secretary in a city welfare office, in East Side/West Side. Most enduring of all was Arthur Duncan, who in 1964 began seven years as a featured dancer on The Lawrence Welk Show on ABC—and who then continued for another decade after Welk left the network in 1971 and produced his musical show for direct syndication.
The most provocative new series featuring African Americans during the 1963-1964 season, however, was East Side/West Side. The program was a product of David Susskind's company, Talent Associates. It was clearly a series with a mission—to portray the depressed human condition in inner-city America. The show featured George C. Scott as Neil Brock, a social worker in New York City.
Although it eventually changed its format and cast Scott as an assistant to a liberal-reformist congressman, East Side/West Side is best remembered as presenting a dismaying picture of life and social values in decaying urban America. In a medium grown used to the requisite happy ending, this program was disconcertingly different. Rather than a champion to right the wrongs of social life, Neil Brock was an antihero, often powerless to correct the ills of society and unable to alter the abused lives he encountered. Nevertheless, at the time critic Cleveland Amory called East Side/West Side "undoubtedly the boldest, bravest and most original new series now on your screen this new season."
Despite the continuing character played by Cicely Tyson, East Side/West Side was not oriented exclusively toward black problems. It probed issues involving the elderly, social derelicts, non-black racial minorities, and other exploited groups. Yet, two of its most memorable episodes dealt with contemporary African-American life. "No Hiding Place" was a powerful indictment of the real estate industry. It concerned unscrupulous realtors trying to panic white residents into selling their suburban homes once one black couple moved into the neighborhood. The program aired December 2, and featured Ruby Dee and Earle Hyman as the interlopers.
As much a condemnation of spineless Caucasian liberalism as it was an attack on racial bigotry, the program reached its climax when Neil Brock berated his indecisive white friend, telling him, "You got to make a personal decision. Doesn't matter what anybody else does, it's what you do. You've got to stop playing 'Larry Liberal' and make up your mind!"
This episode was written by Millard Lampell, a neglected playwright whose "Lonesome Train"—a moving cantata about the funeral train bringing the body of Abraham Lincoln from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois—was one of the most celebrated productions of network radio during World War II. Although he had been blacklisted throughout the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s, Lampell again had become an accepted writer of relevant social drama.
Where "No Hiding Place" attacked bias and exploitation by the unscrupulous, "Who Do You Kill?" was a more generalized condemnation of the attitudes that placed and kept African Americans in poverty. Written by Arnold Perl and telecast on November 4, this was an emotional story concerning a frustrated ghetto resident, played by James Earl Jones, unable to get the break he felt he deserved. His wife, portrayed by Diana Sands, turned of necessity to hustling drinks in a sleazy bar to support her family. The climax was reached in a stark sequence in which the couple's infant child, while sleeping in his crib, was fatally bitten by a rat. The scene of the baby being torn from the rat was poignant. The shriek of remorse emitted by Jones was fundamental human agony. This was not the stuff of which successful weekly series were made. East Side/West Side was canceled in April 1964 after one season.
As well as quantitative improvements, black entertainers gained critical triumphs because of their increasing exposure on television. In 1960, Harry Belafonte was the first black to win an Emmy from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. He won the award for Tonight with Belafonte, telecast December 10, 1959, the first of two NBC variety specials he headlined. The second, Belafonte…New York 19, N.Y., was aired October 20, 1960.
By the early 1960s, recognition came more frequently for African-American actors. Diahann Carroll received an Emmy nomination as best actress in a single performance for her role in "A Horse Has a Big Head ... Let Him Worry," an episode of Naked City televised November 21, 1962. The following year, three blacks were nominated for Emmy awards. These were James Earl Jones and Diana Sands for their roles in "Who Do You Kill?" and Ruby Dee for "Express Stop from Lenox Avenue," a drama on The Nurses aired May 9, 1963.
As distinguished as were many of the programs featuring black actors, predictably they were still racial dramas. African-American actors were still being typecast in black stories. In this time of relevant dramas, TV series shifted from issue to issue. Inevitably each series would focus at least once on the racial issue. Here, blacks would be employed. But just as inevitably, a series would shift focus the following week to another social concern, one which did not involve the race question. Few black actors appeared in these subsequent episodes. These may have been excellent dramas, but the color line was still in effect.